Saturday, November 01, 2008

Superwomen # 4 - The Suffragists.

A day or two from the most important general election the USA has seen for decades, there was no doubt about the subjects of this week's post on superwomen. The suffragists of the late 19th and early 20th century fought hard to secure the right of women to vote, in the USA, UK and in many other countries around the world. We now take this right for granted - we shouldn't!

It would be invidious to feature particular personalities from the legion of women who helped bring about this revolution, but just a reminder of a few names of those involved in the fight on both sides of the Atlantic: Emmeline Pankhurst in the UK, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in the USA. There were male supporters of the cause too, to whom women should be grateful, but this post concentrates on the female effort.

What was going on in the sky as women in many parts of the world were awakening to the injustice of their situation as second-class citizens? Was there any hint of "as above, so below"? Towards the end of the 1800s Uranus, planet of change was in mid-Libra while Pluto planet of transformation had just moved into Gemini - two important outer planets in compatible Air signs, one mutable, open to change, one cardinal an initiator. The communal and generational atmosphere held great potential for communicating (Gemini) the need for justice (Libra).

By the early 1900s Uranus had moved into Sagittarius (extremes, philosophical thought) while Pluto had reached mid Gemini - the two planets lay opposite each other for several years creating dynamic tension during crucial times in the suffragists' rebellion.

Lest we forget, or imagine that all these women did was to march around with banners, it's important to recall exactly what many of them were willing to suffer. This from a biography of a leader of the movement in the USA, Alice Paul (here).

"Beginning January 10, 1917, the NWP (National Woman's Party) began picketing the White House -- the first group in the U.S. to wage a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. They became known as the Silent Sentinels, standing silently by the gates, carrying purple, white and gold banners saying "Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?" and "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" The first day, 12 NWP members marched in a slow, square movement so passers-by could see the banners. Over the next 18 months, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice, day and night, winter and summer, every day except Sunday.

At first they were politely ignored, but then World War I began on April 6 and the picketers' signs became more pointed -- often using the president's quotes against him. One banner read: "Democracy Should Begin at Home." They asked, how could he fight to help disenfranchised people when he had disenfranchised people at home? They became an embarassment.

Spectators began assaulting the women verbally and physically -- while the police did nothing to protect them. Then in June, the police began arresting the picketers on charges of "obstructing traffic." First the charges were dropped, then the women were sentenced to a few days' jail terms. But the suffragists kept picketing, and the jail terms grew longer. Finally, to try to break their spirit, the police arrested Alice on October 20, 1917, and she was sentenced to seven months in prison. The banner she carried that day said:


Alice was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks and immediately began a hunger strike. Unable to walk on her release from there, she was taken to the prison hospital. Others joined the hunger strike. "It was the strongest weapon left with which to continue ... our battle ...," she later said. Then the prison officials put Alice in the "psychopathic" ward, hoping to discredit her as insane. They deprived her of sleep -- she had an electric light, directed at her face, turned on briefly every hour, every night. And they continually threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a notorious asylum in Washington, D.C., as suffering a "mania of persecution." But she still refused to eat. During the last week of her 22-day hunger strike, the doctors brutally forced a tube into her nose and down her throat, pouring liquids into her stomach, three times a day for three weeks. Despite the pain and illness this caused, Alice refused to end the hunger strike. One physician reported:

"[She has] a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up."

Hundreds of women were arrested, with 33 women convicted and thrown into Occoquan Workhouse (now the Lorton Correctional Complex). This was the first of actual violence perpetrated on women: forced feeding, rough handling, worm-infested food, and no contact with the outside world. Blankets were only washed once a year. The open toilets could only be flushed by a guard, who decided when to flush. Doris Stevens, one of the prisoners, later wrote in The Suffragist:

"No woman there will ever forget the shock and the hot resentment that rushed over her when she was told to undress before the entire company ... We silenced our impulse to resist this indignity, which grew more poignant as each woman nakedly walked across the great vacant space to the doorless shower ..."

Viginia Bovee, an officer at the Workhouse, stated in an affidavit after her discharge:
"The beans, hominy, rice, corn meal ... and cereal have all had worms in them. Sometimes the worms float to the top of the soup. Often they are found in the corn bread."

November 15, 1917, became known as the Night of Terror at the Workhouse:

"Under orders from W.H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked." [Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995. Page 182.]

Newspapers across the country ran articles about the suffragists' jail terms and forced feedings -- which angered many Americans and created more support. With mounting public pressure, the government released all the suffragists on November 27 and 28, 1917. Alice served five weeks. Later, the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals overturned all the convictions. "

In the USA it was 1920 before women's suffrage became national, though at state level some areas had agreed earlier. Uranus moved into its own Sign, Aquarius in 1913 and remained there, adding strength to the suffragists' efforts until 1920 when, moving into in Pisces the planet of change (Uranus) and the planet of transformation(Pluto) again came into harmonious aspect in Pisces and Cancer respectively. Two Water signs, often connected to "the feminine".

In the UK, in 1918 women over 30 gained the right to vote, in 1928 they were accorded the right to vote on the same terms as men. A slow and painful process - like pulling teeth!

"I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality."


anthonynorth said...

As a side issue to this, I'm often fascinated by the relationship the subject has to Spiritualism.
Here was a movement that first gave immense importance to women (most mediums were female), and the fact that the seminal moment of each was in 1848 in New York State is an amazing coincidence.

Fighting propaganda said...

And did women face the equal responsibility to fight in WW1? Nah. The reason *ORDINARY* men were given the vote was because of how many of them fought for their country in WW1. The issue is more complex than you make it out to be. Equally, women had always had power to vote in the local elections, which were way more important in those days.

Twilight said...

AN ~~~ I hadn't noticed that coincidence. Hmmm. i wonder if there's some astrological link to that? In March 1848 Neptune had just moved into its own sign of Pisces - both connect to spiritualism, mediumship etc.

Re the coming to the fore of women generally, there might be an astrological link to one of the asteroids' position at that time, but I don't have an asteroid ephemeris to check. Several are said to have connection to "the feminine" .

Twilight said...

Fighting propaganda -Hi. Thanks for your visit and comment.

I should point out that I didn't set out here to discuss the whole scene with whys and wherefores of universal suffrage. A post like that would go on for several pages. I am not making the situation out to be less complex, I am looking, primarily, at the astrology of that time to see whether there was correlation.

I'm also relating to one particular aspect of this topic - to point out what a group of women were willing to suffer to achieve their aim on behalf of all women, then and in the future. Today's women owe them gratitude, in my opinion.

R J Adams said...

Re: one of your commentators, he seems to consider fighting in a war a necessary qualification for voting. He should have lived in the Roman era. He'd have been appreciated.

Reading the excerpt from Alice Paul's biography made me smile. Those who consider George W Bush to be different from other presidents should delve more deeply into US history. They'd soon realize the suppression of ordinary folk has been a routine hobby of presidents throughout the ages.

Twilight said...

RJ ~~~ LOL! Yes, there are quite a few around the net would fit in well in Imperial Rome....that thought makes me homesick for sight of Frankie Howard on his way to the forum. :-D

I agree, GWB isn't one of a kind - he's one of a breed. Let's hope the next one is very different.
I have a feeling he will be. Fingers crossed,X breath held.....

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh, we have these women to thank and honour, forever, T. How brave they were!

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ Yes, yes! And what inhuman treatment was handed out to them!

Laura said...

what a great post , i really enjoyed reading it

Twilight said...

Hi Laura - glad you liked it!